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Establishing yourself as a trusted channel advisor

Becoming a trusted channel advisor requires VARs to take a long-term approach and show customers that they can be direct about sales without being overaggressive.

There are three themes that I have found to be critical to becoming a trusted channel advisor: Trust through establishment, directness and discretion.

I’ve seen successful VARs with only one of these qualifications, but the ones that seem to be successful through the ups and downs of the economy exhibit all three.

Trust through establishment
Solutions providers with staff that have worked within IT know that VARs, in general, do not have the established credibility shared by their distributors and manufacturers. So despite the frustration of dealing with a large company and being “one more in the queue,” IT staff and management will seek out direct, distributor or national VAR relationships to avoid having a bad experience with a smaller VAR.

What is trust through establishment? It’s simply the facts, ideas, statements, and details that you present that make you a viable company and VAR. This isn’t a checklist on establishing a business, but rather a complete picture of your business as established. Does your website name officers, key staff, large wins or white papers? Does your building directory list your company? Does your website, brochures, and literature contain pictures of your offices, staff, labs or other items? Do sales collateral have easy ways of reaching out through direct phone numbers, short URLs?

Trust through establishment is also a key aspect to verbal communications. While you must overcome roadblocks created by customer hesitation, avoiding direct questions will remove trust establishment.

Ironically, trust establishment should not be pushed. If your prospective customer is not interested in validating that you are an established VAR, then most likely the topic will come up at another meeting at an appropriate time, or your public presence on the Web was more than enough to answer any concerns.

The direct approach
Being direct with customers is a tough business. Customers are often seeking validation on their ideas, methods and approaches. In our efforts to please them, we often avoid suggesting better alternatives until the right audience, better time or better conditions become available. But VARs that are welcomed back on the next project are those that convince the customer that there was an alternative and helped avoid the issues that the customer would have run into.

The following example of a VAR-customer conversation about a backup product encompasses the type of communication that can lose a customer. The customer realized their backup licensing allowed them to backup “for free” using directory mounts off of file servers. To save on licensing fees, the customer would often mount drives across the network and back them up that way, saving several thousands of dollars in maintenance each year. The sales rep understood the technical challenges with these types of backups and was convinced that they most likely either never completed (as was the case with other customers), or the staff wasn’t forthcoming on what was being backed up. He knew, however, at the particular point in time that his assertion could be perceived as simply selling more licenses.

VAR: We can save you money [with this product].

Customer: While cost is important to us, we are obviously large enough to buy direct, we are actually looking to have local resources to ensure project and long term continuity with our vendors. How many technical resources do you have that could deploy and support the backup product?

VAR (avoiding question): We can handle all your backup and storage needs, have you decided to go with the backup product?

Customer: Yes we will likely use the product assuming we can find local expertise.

VAR: Well, we can get you as many resources as you need to get it deployed and supported. We will handle both the hardware and the maintenance agreements. We had 3+ million in revenue and are experienced handling customers of your size.

Customer: How many technical resources can support the solution?

He lost the deal to another VAR that had less than $2 million in revenue, was not staffed to “provide you as many resources as needed” and only had two technical resources to support the solution.

The difference? The winning VAR was direct with the customer and stated the obvious right off the bat.

VAR: You obviously have options, and are looking at local VARs, so what can we do that the big guys cannot?”

Customer: We need local resources to ensure the project runs smoothly. We also need long term continuity so that future projects can kick off quicker based upon the local expertise. How many technical resources do you have that could deploy and support the product?

VAR: We have two techs on staff; one is a senior engineer, but also had architecture experience and the junior isn’t a typical junior engineer. He also holds the vendor certification, and has 17 deployments under his belt. Would you or your staff have time to spend some time with them to get a comfort level?

I watched the winning VAR perform during the project. I was on-site for the customer performing network projects, so it gave me a good chance to watch the VAR-customer interaction. It took the VAR about seven months to establish itself as one of the go-to VARs for the customer, but their approach was obviously long-term. They ensured continuity on tasks, stayed in tune with the customer and were always readily available, while not pressing the customer’s staff. My customer had come to the conclusion that the losing VAR would have to seek expertise on the backup solution once they won the business. (This was in fact incorrect -- the losing VAR also had two techs on staff, but he failed to answer the question.)

The VAR sales rep told both the director and manager about what he had seen at other customer sites. He recommended that they mention the concern in the approval process to avoid the perception of later seeking new funding because of a “miss” and that they revisit the topic once they got further into the project. Once they got to the analysis in the project phase, the customer validated that practically none of their mounted backups were completing, and those that were completing were running throughout the production day, impacting network performance.

Using discretion with customers
A healthy dose of directness must be balanced with discretion. Discretion in sales means respect and patience. If you are not respectful of inside customer tidbits of information, either discretely or inadvertently passed to you, then you will find customers are less willing to work with you. If a customer is getting pricing to determine if they can approach upper management out of budget cycle, then jumping right into the qualifying phase of the sales cycle will show the staff that you’re not the VAR to go to before needs are formalized and communicated up.

The keys to applying discretion are changing some basic sales habits:

Keep quiet -- Don’t ask questions, qualify and up-sale on every request. While it’s true that potential customers have to be helped with defining what they want, often times they don’t want to have to decide right away. Trusted channel advisors also have trusted customers. If a budgetary quote is needed, often getting the customer the quote, validating its receipt and then letting them think about it is very effective in situations where they are not being driven by a particular solution or date. If there is a road block for you, it is okay to identify it as a road block and work on overcoming it, rather than tabling it to focus on qualifying the deal.

Ask before sharing -- Although a need has been formalized and you’ve been working to actively find a solution, the customer contact that shared some insight about the problem or need earlier may be in the dark. You should always reach out to the person and say that it appears there is movement and that you’ve been engaged to help. Thank the person for the insight, and ask them if there are any sensitive or political issues to avoid. By checking in with the person, it avoids them perceiving that you’re not discrete especially if they were not aware the information they provided is causing a change to occur.

Be direct when you can’t be discrete. Sometimes you will be asked to offer confidential information that you know you’re not allowed to provide. For example, some large companies do not want their technical staff receiving pricing information directly and it must go through the procurement office. If a technical resource comes to you asking for a quote, then you need to be direct and mention the requirement. Assuming they know the rule and will be discrete with the information will get you a call from the procurement office whenever the technician innocently provides it as a budget item suggestion to his boss.

By establishing an establishment trust, being direct and using discretion appropriately, you will position yourself to become a trusted channel advisor with your prospects and customers. Take a look at your company and make sure it has the qualities of an established business, then look at your account manager’s tactics and ensure they are being both direct and discrete.

About the author
Ronald McCarty is a freelance writer, information technology consultant, and the owner of Your Net Guard LLC, an IT consulting company located in Dallas, Texas. He has written for numerous publications and websites including TechTarget, CMP, Cisco Press, and New Riders. Ron is also the author of Ubuntu Linux System Administration.

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